Where They Are Now

A century in Review

Chris Capozziello

Chris Capozziello

Poet J. D. ("Sandy") McClatchy ’74PhD, at his desk at the Yale Review, is overseeing the journal's 100th anniversary issues this year. View full image

Poet and adjunct English professor J. D. (“Sandy”) McClatchy ’74PhD has been editing the Yale Review since 1991. The author of six award-winning poetry collections, McClatchy is also a prolific and accomplished opera librettist who has written for the Met (Mozart’s Magic Flute), La Scala (An Inconvenient Truth, based on Al Gore’s book), and many other companies. His most recently published book is Seven Mozart Librettos: A Verse Translation. McClatchy, who is also the president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, lives in Stonington, Connecticut.Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam ’75 talked to him on the occasion of the Review’s 100th anniversary.

Y: Do you really dream in iambic pentameter, as one reviewer has suggested?

M: Thankfully, no. If I did, I’d be awake half the night revising.

Y: You write that the Review’s four anniversary issues this year, featuring exclusively Yale faculty contributions, will “compose a portrait of the mind of Yale over the past century.” What does that portrait look like?

M: Our mission is one that Wilbur Cross, the English professor and governor of Connecticut and founder of the modern Review,would still recognize. He was interested in promoting conflicting but intelligent views to provide an intellectual forum for ideas. But on this anniversary, we are featuring only work by Yale faculty, to give an intellectual portrait of the university over the past century.

Y: So who will be in the July “Greatest Hits Ever” issue?

M: I haven’t decided on that yet. It will stretch from William Lyon Phelps to Maynard Mack. All I’ve done is isolate the issues we’ll address. Now we have to play the awful game of “You’re in, you’re out.”

Y: I hope [English professor] Harold Bloom won’t learn of his exclusion in this interview.

M: The July issue comprises only the greatest hits from the no longer living, so I don’t think he minds being excluded. He has an excellent essay in the first of the anniversary issues.

Y: President Benno Schmidt [’63, ’66LLB] closed the Review in 1990 and set off quite a kerfuffle. Joyce Carol Oates, George Plimpton, Harvard’s Helen Vendler, and many others complained about the move, and the university reinstated the Review with you as editor. What happened?

M: I was teaching poetry and creative writing at Princeton at the time, so I wasn’t really a part of what was going on. It’s true that those people protested, but what I heard was that when John Hersey resigned from a university committee over the Review’s closing, that was what they now call a tipping point. The university was funding towel service for the women’s junior varsity water polo team, but eliminated a literary magazine that had existed in various forms since 1819. Hersey felt Yale’s priorities were askew. He was this paragon of Yale tradition and probity who forced Schmidt to revisit his unwise decision.

Y: You have been teaching literature, opera, and poetry at Yale since you were a grad student in the late 1960s. Tell me about the students.

M: I always teach undergraduates. I much prefer undergrads—they are smarter, they are more curious than graduate students, and they are actually interested in the subject rather than in their careers. They are not victims of ideological fashion the way some grad students can be. They arrive with a kind of enthusiasm and dare I say innocence that is fatally attractive to a teacher. The excitement of teaching Yale undergrads is to watch already very intelligent young people have their eyes widened by new ways of thinking about old material.

Y: I suspect that the number of magazines and journals that publish fiction and poetry, as the Review does, has declined. Is that true, and has the Internet picked up some of the slack?

M: Yes it’s true, and obviously the Internet has filled the gap, a bit. There are a lot of online journals, like Slate and Salon, some of them with better intentions than others. We’re in a very volatile and uncertain transition period here, because no one knows what the digital future is going to look like and how information and knowledge is going to be transmitted.

Y: At the Review, you’ve made a decision to radically limit free Internet access to the articles.

M: The publisher made that decision to force the hand of potential subscribers. If you subscribe to the print edition, you get free web access to all the issues, but we didn’t want to give the unbaptized all our content for nothing. It’s a desperate move on the part of publishers to keep what they already have. It doesn’t seem to me to have a long future as a publishing strategy.

Would an author rather be published in print, or online? In print, of course. No author is a fool. A writer loves the tactile pleasure of smelling and feeling the pages of her own work. But she also likes a big audience. So a writer may have to choose between creating a beautiful object or having a readership like Tolstoy’s.

Y: You devote a huge amount of your creative energies to poetry and the opera, which some might call endangered cultural species. What are your feelings on the relative health of those genres?

M: [Laughing.] Well, if you include editing the Yale Review, you might say I specialize in endangered cultural species. The world is filled with specialists, with people who collect stamps, who bird watch, who play bocce. If you say just one percent of the population is interested in opera, that is millions of people. There is a public life in the community, and there is a private life. Opera and poetry are things that seem to shape and nurture the inner life of a community. You can’t say that the numbers are huge, but the impact is great.

Y: In November of 2008, you wrote a lovely poem for the New York Times, “Election Day,” that was then broadcast on PBS. How do you feel about occasional poetry, and will you be composing a poem to commemorate the Yale Review’s 100th anniversary?

M: I bet every writer starts as an occasional writer. I wrote my first poem for my mother’s birthday, to get her attention and to make her think I was more important than my siblings. That is why people write—to get noticed. That Times commission was the first formal occasional poem I’ve written, and I hope it won’t be the last. But I prefer somebody else make the occasion, not me. I’ve never published myself in the Yale Review, and I won’t start now.  

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